France 1974

Reviewed By-Kit Gavin
Directed by Walarian Borowczyk
Starring Sirpa Lane, Lisbeth Hummel, Guy Trejan, Pierre Benedetti.
Released through: Nouveaux Pictures
Region 2 PAL

When the film, The Beast was conceived, in 1972, by it’s director, the Polish Walarian Borowczyk, it was initially intended as one of the short stories within Immoral Tales. However, the director chose to expand upon the theme and make a full-length feature, leaving the initial three tales as a separate and successful feature in their own right. Immoral Tales was to prove highly successful for both Borowczyk and his distributor in France, Argos Films, showing to the world Borowczyk’s own unique blend and brand of eroticism. Indeed, there are a number of motifs, styles and themes in Immoral Tales, which would later surface in The Beast.

There are some moments of genuinely visionary eroticism, such as the moment when the young attractive Danish actress 19-year-old Lisbeth Hummel, in a sheer nightgown masturbates with the petals of a rose. The scene mimics a similar tale in Immoral Tales where one of the female protagonists masturbates with a cucumber). Also Borowczyk's camera roams through the French chateau, lingering lovingly on objects and imbuing them with a unique sense of their own eroticism. The most famous scene, where the late Finnish actress Sirpa Lane (born 1955 in Helsinki) is chased by the titular beast and their copulation has the most vision. The be-wigged Lane looks splendid in her 18th century noblewoman’s garb. Pursued and chased by the Beast, her clothes gradually torn from her, leaving the scantily clad Lane, with heaving breasts peeping from her corset and very sexy shapely backside in view, as she flees through the trees to the sounds of a slightly frenetic harpsichord theme.

The film opens with the sound of horses whinnying over the opening white on Black credits. Shortly afterwards we cut to a farmyard scene, being watched by Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel) armed with her Polaroid where she captures two horses mating. The scene seems rather excessive, with close ups of the stallion getting aroused and the mare’s vagina contracting and retracting in preparation for penetration. Aficionados of exploitation cinema might be interested to note that out takes from the footage shot here later cropped up, surprisingly, in of all places Bruno Mattei’s The True Story of the Nun of Monza. Lucy is keen to capture this moment, before chastised and being driven away, speaking in English with her aunt where a pre-arranged marriage between her and Maruthin de l’Esperance, so as both impoverished fallen aristocratic stock, can achieve money and status once more. However, the son seems troubled, and almost backward.

Lucy stays at the chateau, waiting for her wedding day. There are some admittedly peculiar personalities as opposed to characters we are introduced to along the way. Such as the dysfunctional family discussing a baptism, and more sexual scenes such as those with a young maid, eager to be serviced by a black servant, but who eventually mounts and clitorally stimulates herself on the bedpost. However for some reason Lucy’s sexual temperament increases, she lies in the bed in a see through gauzy full-length nightgown, masturbating, before stimulating her pudenda with the petals of a rose. However rather than showing Lucy pleasuring herself in a lurid voyeuristic manner, Borowczyk shows it in a sensual erotic manner, showing the beads of sweat and the excitement rising in Lucy as opposed to leering at it’s subject almost lecherously as might be the case where this a mere attempt at exploitation.

Welcomed into the clan, Lucy makes a discovery by noticing a portrait and discovering the diaries about one of the ancestors of the family she is marrying into, Romilda de l’Esperance (Sirpa Lane), who’s torn corset has been kept by the family since the 18th century. Lucy has a full on flashback of Romilda playing her harpsichord in the folly, before her full on bestial encounter. Her clothes are torn from her, and she falls to the ground. Catching a glimpse of her legs spread, giving both the viewer and the turned on beast a brief but direct close up of her vagina before Romilda covers herself in modesty. Romilda flees. However whilst trying to flee from the Beasts clutches she clambers up a tree only to have her heels and feet tangled round the Beast’s ludicrously huge genitalia. Using her heels she brings the Beast to the point of orgasm, and causes it to engage in the most tremendous orgasm and ejaculation. This scene was responsible for the controversy surrounding the film as it showed the Beast fully erect and full on ejaculation. However, the Beast itself is ludicrously fake and its phallus is even more so, even when pumping out in close up, the gallons of semen. The beast’s penis as unnatural in size as much as dimensions, resembling a large brown elephant trunk. The scenes of ejaculation understandably would have caused offense and still for the fainthearted viewer might well do so. For this reason, for many years, the film was banned by the BBFC. Fortunately they saw sense and the ludicrous element probably over rid the erotic, and perhaps this allowed attitude to be more relaxed in Britain which eventually, within a couple of years, allowed for the legalization (not overdue) of hardcore pornography to be sold (in 2002). Lane’s scenes with the Beast per se are not erotic, nor is the imagery, and it is mildly amusing/mildly perverse to see Romilda drenched in the creatures semen; as she masturbates it, smearing the semen over her breasts and gnawing at the creatures glans in relish like an oversized ice cream in a cone. This encounter presumably caused a genetic defect within strands of the Esperance family and by bizarre twist of fate; this has led to a family curse and is shown in the bizarre finale of the film, where Lucy’s groom to be is shown to be part man, part beast.

As a matter of interest, given the strength, talent, and beauty of the two leading actresses, neither of them had a particularly lengthy nor fulfilling career. Hummel reprised a similar role in La bella e la bestia by Luigi Russo, (whom Hummel would continue to collaborate with on various efforts up until 1989). Sirpa Lane who perhaps showed the most promise was also cast in the lead of CHARLOTTE: THE STORY OF A YOUNG GIRL KILLED – by Roger Vadim later the same year, before she started a career in Italy, noted for her blonde hair, blue eyes, and rounded buttocks by French critics. She appeared as the beautiful covert Jewish madame in LA SVASTIKA BEL VENTRE (released Stateside as LIVING NIGHTMARE and internationally as NAZI LOVE CAMP 27). She also appeared in a sort of sequel, LA BESTIA PORNO NEL SPAZIO, for Italy’s schlock director Alfonso Brescia, as well as Joe D’Amato’s PAPAYA. D’Amato and Lane didn’t see eye to eye, and he frequently criticized her as being the worst actress he had ever worked with. An appearance in American Playboy® followed. After a few more lead roles in the early 80’s, including Lucrezia Borgia opposite George Hilton in her last role, Lane appeared on the cover of French Playboy®, before fading into relative obscurity. Then she resurfaced in the late 90’s, in a number of magazines in her home country, of Finland, discussing her affliction with AIDS, which would eventually take her life in 1999.

The film, The Beast, has itself had a checkered history, and was released in what many consider to be the years of the erotic revolution in France between 1972 and 1976, where censorship was less repressive and restrictive, and France was to delve into new heights, or depths, depending on the spectators point of view, of eroticism and hardcore cinema. Owing to the more relaxed attitude, hardcore erotic imagery could be shown, with erect penises, penetration, ejaculation, sexual deviation and kinky sex being shown on screen in legitimate theaters. Adaptations of erotic novels such as Just Jaeckin’s land mark features EMMANUELLE and HISTOIRE D’O, a vagina that spewed expletives (LA SEXE QUI PARLE), a dominatrix and her clients (Barbet Shroeder’s seminal MAITRESSE), and the introduction of some of the more bizarre stars of the period – such as the strikingly unusual Sylvie Bourdon. All of these being made with higher budgets, and legitimately. Into the melee of filmmaking came The Beast.

The Beast was shown at film festivals around the world. It had already garnered notoriety by the time it came to London and was shown as part of the London Film Festival. In fact the screening was sold out. The film too was shown complete, and uncut, which was not considered unusual, as film titles are frequently shown uncut as part of the festival, bypassing the censors until it’s hopefully eventual later release. However the film was greeted with such shock, praise and revulsion by it’s spectators due to it’s themes of ejaculation and graphic masturbation that the organizers were left rather red-faced as the press reported it’s screening in less than glowing terms. When the film was eventually re-released it was crudely cut with many of it’s scenes being seen as bestial hardcore pornography (despite the fact that the ejaculations are obviously as fake as the penis ejaculating them) but it was, and even still is considered strong stuff. However, fortunately, owing to relaxed attitudes, some 25 years after it’s initial release at cinemas (and after a heavily cut release on domestic video); the film was finally passed uncut by the BBFC and given a DVD and video release in the United Kingdom (although the DVD is apparently missing some small sections of footage, here and there, but nothing pivotal to the story).

The film itself does have an art house feel. It is well shot, and genuinely erotic at times, with plentiful nudity and teasing titillation too and at moments – depending on the sway of the viewer. Without doubt the director has an eye for beauty, and his cinematographer can frame exceptionally, which again makes this stand out from the potboilers and the exploitation movies rife at the time. There is considerable detail and effort made, and the film sets and the characters that populate them are fascinating and move through the film like ciphers, as to be honest the story line is pretty threadbare. It does show that the film was conceived from a short, but this by no means is just tedious padding around a centerpiece. Borowczyk would later explore the theme of bestial sex once again in his more accomplished Dr Jekyll et les femmes (a.k.a. Bloodbath, and The Strange Case of Miss Osbourne), staring Udo Kier and one of Borowczyk’s favorite muses, Marina Pierro.

The DVD presentation here is in anamorphic widescreen, and the film is shown as it was made with both French and English dialogue. The colors are bright, with a little grain, and an occasional scratch, but the film is uncut and shown in its correct aspect ratio (1:66:1). The cover for the UK, shows of the late Sirpa Lane aghast in horror, whereas the US release has the preferable cover, that of the original French poster showing Lane’s legs, with a graze by the beast, and a claw raised. But the UK DVD is superior, in terms of picture quality, and that the film is shown in its original language. There is an unexceptional gallery and strangely enough the inclusion of The Tide, the first chapter of the aforementioned Immoral Tales (also available on DVD from Nouveaux pictures, together with Behind Convent Walls, another excursion into Borowczyk’s unique realm of eroticism). All in all, it is a satisfying disc, and for those wishing to expand their realms into arthouse/erotica, the film and worth seeking out and seeing. Some may find some of the scenes such as the climactic scene (pun intended) between Lane and Beast amusing, perverse, bizarre, repulsive or intriguing. However as a complete film, it is worth delving that little further and seeing what was once shocking and a landmark small piece of bizarre, erotic European cinema.

Story: 2.5 BITCH SLAPS
Picture/Audio: 3.5 BITCH SLAPS